Bonsai for Beginners – Part 9 – Larch

Previous post.

I hope to have the spoons to write at least a few posts about bonsai trees again and today I will write a bit about one genus that I consider very suitable for beginners – larches. Among coniferous trees, larches have several huge advantages.

  1. They are deciduous and create brachyblasts with terminal buds that can almost always grow into twigs/branches for several years, thus they are one of the very few conifers that can be scaled back significantly and kept at a small size for decades with minimal effort.
  2. The roots tend to grow very fast in length but they also respond very well to cutting back, branching out from the cut, and above it.
  3. The seeds germinate reasonably reliably and can be collected from grown trees. Seedlings sprout everywhere around a grown tree, being a de-facto weed in nearby gardens.
  4. Larches are very sturdy and can survive adverse conditions like frost or short drought reasonably well. They can also survive slightly rougher handling than other trees and have a reasonably large time window when they can be re-potted safely.
  5. They create very dramatic and dynamic shapes even without the use of a wire. Two of my three larch trees were never wired.
  6. They need porous and airy substrate but if put into a well-drained pot they will tolerate almost anything except maybe wet heavy clay.

You have already seen one of my larch trees in the past. And today I have made pictures of the rest and I will write something about how to care for them.

First, the tree that was in the previous post, how it looks this year before re-poting.

© Charly, all rights reserved. Click for full size.

As you can see, it has grown slightly bigger, but not that much considering it’s been six years. And it is flowering again, showing that it is indeed a mature tree and not just a few years old seedling. But it had to be put in a slightly bigger pot because there is a limit to how much back the crown can be cut – new twigs can only sprout from brachyblasts, they cannot be cut back beyond them, and the roots must be of adequate size for the crown to prosper. So with a larch tree, either start with an oversized pot or expect to increase pot size every few years ever so slightly. The base of the trunk has visible roots and is covered with moss and lichen – as it should be.

The next tree demonstrates the sturdiness of larches.

© Charly, all rights reserved. Click for full size.

Initially, it was very similar to the first tree (and they both are from seeds planted in the same year). But two years ago, most of this tree’s crown has not survived dry summer followed by a tough winter. But it bounced back remarkably from a lower branch and as you can see, it has acquired quite a character in just two years. To help the tree to recover its strengths, I have put it into a slightly larger and deeper pot and I will continue to do so for another year/two depending on how it fares. But it looks quite well and the dead wood is now part of the composition. And the tree has now a genuine story behind it – it was not my deliberate destruction that created it but nature itself. Such dead wood is oftentimes part of a composition of a bonsai tree and it needs to be preserved. I am soaking it once/twice a year with an antifungal polysulfidic sulfur solution. It will slowly preserve and also somewhat bleach the wood. If I decide I do not like the dead branch, it can be cut and it will heal in a year or two.

And the best for last.

First, a picture from 2003, shortly (several years) after I acquired the tree.

© Charly, all rights reserved. Click for full size.

Originally, the tree grew near railroad tracks, on a rocky slope, in an orientation that was turned about 90° CCW to how it is in this picture. It was cut down at least four times – you can see where the trunk suddenly ends (cut 1), then there is one dead branch (cut 2), a living branch that suddenly ends (cut 3), and a thinner branch that overgrew all the rest from under until it too was cut. It was clear to me that the tree will ultimately be destroyed so I poached it from its location with a clear conscience and re-planted it in my garden. Because it grew in a rocky location, I could not get a nice rootball with it, just two long thin roots and a stump of the main root that I had to cut. That was the beginning of several years-long journey of restoring the tree’s roots. Each year I have cut back the roots a bit so they branch out, treating the cuts with crushed charcoal, and as it developed thinner roots nearer and nearer the trunk, I have slowly shortened the stump of the main root until it was completely gone. After about five years or so the tree could be planted in a pot, originally as you see it above.

The tree also had an unseemly hollow in the trunk where the original first tip was cut and that had to be filled. I treated the hollow with fungicide, then with a bit of resin I glued in a piece of cork and waited for several years too. The tree developed a callus over the cork and the trunk healed and developed nice bark. And now, after two decades, it is a pride of my collection. It is also the only tree that prompted me to give it a name – The Reclining Dragon.

© Charly, all rights reserved. Click for full size.

As you can see, I have in the end completely changed the direction in which the tree grows, and instead of a windswept informal standing style it has a windswept semi-cascade style. A tree like this should be grown in a different pot according to Japanese bonsai rules but I like the way it looks now. I am searching for a suitably big stone to make a pot even better suiting its dramatic looks.

It is flowering this year too, so it is now covered in beautiful teensy red (female) and yellow (male) cones.

© Charly, all rights reserved. Click for full size.

If you wish to start growing bonsai trees, you cannot go wrong with larch if they prosper in your climate. The one major downside they have is that they are susceptible to being infested with aphids, especially wooly aphids. But they respond well to being treated with insecticides.


  1. Ice Swimmer says

    They are beautiful.

    I’m guessing your larches are European larches. Here, both European and Siberian larches have been introduced as both ornamental trees and for forestry. AFAIK Siberian larches are more common here, being among the very few foreign conifers that can thrive in this rather peculiar combination of day length and climate.

  2. says

    I am glad you like these, although I got lucky with them. I am, at best, below average bonsaist.

    @Ice Swimmer, these are Larix decidua. I do not think I have seen other species of larch in the forests around my town.

  3. lumipuna says

    Many foreign conifers can be actually grown in Finland (for some standard of success), but none have been planted on mass scale. For larches, sibirica is indeed the most common species as an ornamental (and rarely as a forest tree), but decidua also grows in southern and central parts.

    I’ve seen some literature suggesting that the European (?) larch did spread into Scandinavia during previous interglacials (warm periods between ice ages), but somehow couldn’t make it this time. The current native range of European larch apparently extends north into Poland. The native range of Siberian larch extends west up to Onega river, not far from Finland. Larches shouldn’t be alien here, but I’ve always felt them as a bit odd, seeing them only occasionally since childhood.

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